I don’t know why, but it’s just so hard for me to wrap my head around playing UCF as a Big 12 opponent. Cincinnati and Houston have blended in pretty easily for me, but I’m still not thinking of UCF and BYU as Big 12 teams quite yet. Unlike those other three teams, UCF is likely to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 in their first member season. They’re in the KenPom top 100, but at 86th, which puts them above only Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Those teams are both 0-2, and unless UCF can shock the college basketball world tonight, UCF is headed there as well.
UCF fits nicely into the current meta of the Big 12. They play tough defense, with a little less emphasis on the offense. Despite being near the bottom of the conference overall, they rate 25th defensively per KenPom. Teams that force a lot of turnovers scare me as a Kansas fan this year, and UCF does exactly that. They rank 10th nationally in TO rate, though they inflated those numbers by playing one of the worst non-con slates in the country (SOS ranked 325th), so while turnovers are a strength, they may not be a strength to the extent that the non-adjusted numbers would indicate. In their Big 12 opener against K-State, which they lost 77-52, they only forced turnovers on 18.1% of possessions, compared to their overall rate of 23%. Their 2 point defense and shot blocking have been fantastic (ranking 14th and 4th in the country, respectively), but once again, opponents matter, and while they blocked plenty of shots against KSU, their 2 point defense did not hold up to their non-con numbers. It should also be noted that while this UCF team generates a lot of blocks and steals, it comes at a cost. They’re 295th nationally in sending teams to the free throw line, and K-State shot 23 free throws against them Saturday.
UCF is also an excellent rebounding team, cleaning the glass on both ends of the court. As far as their offense is concerned, that’s pretty much where their strengths both begin and end. They hit only 49% of their twos and 32% of their threes. While Kansas doesn’t typically force many turnovers, UCF still tends to give the ball away frequently. They’re pretty average in terms of getting to the line, but they shoot just 68.8% when they get there. This is a team with just two reliable three point shooters: Darius Johnson and Marchelus Avery, who’ve hit 38% and 41% for the year on 63 and 46 attempts. Their interior presence on both ends is 7 foot, 250 pound goliath Ibrahima Diallo. Diallo has played in less than half the team’s minutes, but that has varied wildly. He’s played as few as 7 and as many as 29. He’s fouled out once, but doesn’t frequently find himself in foul trouble, at least in part due to not playing heavy minutes. Against K-State he played 14 minutes, scoring 3 points while grabbing 6 rebounds with a block and a steal. When Diallo is in the game, he tends to make an impact, ranking in the top 100 nationally in rebounding rate on both ends of the floor, and with a monstrous 14.2% block rate, 3rd nationally. With Hunter Dickinson to worry about, UCF may push Diallo for as many minutes as they can get out of him. If he can handle those minutes and stay out of foul trouble, he could help limit Kevin McCullar and KJ Adams from getting their shots at the rim as well, though attacking the rim and trying to draw fouls on Diallo as a help defender may still be a strategy that could pay off. UCF lacks great rebounding and shot blocking elsewhere on the roster if you can get the big man off the floor.
I don’t see UCF putting up a lot of points on Kansas, but if they can force turnovers and turn them into transition buckets, it could go a long way in helping them stay in the game. Neither UCF or Kansas tends to favor a slow tempo, but UCF does play faster than Kansas and it’s tough to see the Knights carving up the Jayhawks’ half court defense, so getting the ball and running may be their best option. With that said, a lot of running likely makes it harder to keep Diallo in the game, so I’m glad coming up with a gameplan for them isn’t my job. Looking at UCF’s defensive numbers makes me nervous, given KU’s tendency to disappear offensively at times, but seeing that they didn’t hold up against Kansas State makes me a bit more bullish on this game. I do see a path to a blowout victory for Kansas, but I think we may see a few too many turnovers for that to happen. Nonetheless, I don’t think KU will come out of Orlando with a loss. The talent disparity between the teams is just too great, and a lot of UCF’s statistical dominance on the defensive end came against extremely weak competition. I’ll take Kansas, but in a single digit game that may be frustrating to watch at times.
Kansas 72, UCF 64